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Gary Younge
The power struggle

The story of slavery and colonialism is similarly relegated to, at best, an unfortunate episode from less enlightened times, and at worst a civilising force, rather than the theft of land and labour that impoverished an entire continent and enriched a few individuals. And so the recent events in Zimbabwe are depicted as the plight of white farmers at the hands of black mobs, rather than the cynical attempt to undermine democracy by an embattled president desperate to retain power.

The situation here is highly emotive. Two white women have been raped; two white men have been killed. No decent human being can condone this. The use of violence, terror and misogyny as a political tool is abhorrent and cannot be excused, mitigated or explained away by any reasonable person who professes to believe in democracy or humanism. No Zimbabwean should have their national credentials questioned or undermined as a result of their race or ethnicity. If it was wrong for Norman Tebbit to do it in Britain then it is wrong for Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe to do it here.

Now for some context. White Zimbabweans comprise less than half a percent of the total population. The fact that they are small in number does not, in itself, mean that their condition should not be the focus of attention - you can often tell a great deal from a country by the way in which it treats minorities. But there have been six murders of black Zimbabweans in the last two weeks of political violence, one of a pregnant woman, and one alleged rape. Although they account for three quarters of the deaths so far they have not received even a scintilla of the media attention.

Focusing on the plight of white farmers and their families, events in Zimbabwe are a white supremacist's dream. Proof, in one simple narrative, that black people are unable to govern themselves, that white women are at the prey of black men and that Africa is full of basket cases who bring their destitution on themselves. Only then do the graphic accounts of rape, pictures of white women clutching her children as black men toyi-toyi (protest dance) a few yards away on the other side of her fence and references to "uncivilised mobs" slot into place.

Yet if you take all of these deaths - black and white - into account you can begin to understand the motivation for this apparently senseless violence. Only then does it become clear that these murders are not random, but logical; not racial, but political.

Zimbabwe is one month away from elections for which a date has not yet been set. For the past 20 years the country has been ruled by one party (Zanu-PF) - and one president: Mugabe. Now the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is gaining ground while Zanu-PF and Mugabe are haemorrhaging credibility. They are not, as some have suggested, devoid of political legitimacy. If there were an election tomorrow Zanu-PF would still be the largest party. But they would no longer, effectively, be the only party. That prospect has worried them sufficiently to attack their opponents.

The killings that have taken place have been, essentially, political. All of the murders bar one were committed against members of the MDC (the other was a black policeman whom Zanu-PF supporters thought was a member of MDC because he had a new bike). Mugabe has whipped up tensions and created a climate of intimidation that could allow him to either postpone the elections, cancel them, or hold them under a state of emergency which would effectively strip them of any pretence of being free or fair.

Moreover, what was once a fundamentally sound economy is now in tatters. Inflation, interest rates and unemployment are all high. The price of two litres of milk has risen by 136% in the past year. Queues of up to three hours for petrol are not unheard of. Mugabe and his government have nobody to blame for this but themselves. And since they are not likely to do that in a hurry they have drawn on an age-old British tradition - they look for someone to scapegoat and then play the race card.

But, unlike the victimisation of asylum seekers in Britain at present, this is not a straight fight between the powerful and the powerless. White Zimbabweans may be a tiny minority but they own the vast majority of good land. And they did not come by it honestly. They acquired it in much the same way as the war veterans have sought to regain it - under a bloody campaign of organised, armed theft. Two wrongs may not make a right; but it is not feasible to right a wrong in the present while ignoring wrongdoing in the past.

So while it is possible to sympathise with the individual suffering of white farmers, it is difficult to take their collective spasm of moral indignation at the current state of affairs seriously. Almost all Zimbabweans, including many whites, believe that for the country to progress there has to be substantial land reform. The MDC say after the economy it is the second most important issue in the forthcoming election. The question is not whether, but how the government goes about it.

The farmers' complaints about the demise of democracy are also hard to stomach. These are the people - not all but most - who fought tooth and nail to maintain white minority rule and only surrendered at gunpoint. Mugabe could do with a good lecture on democracy and the rule of law. But he can be forgiven for not taking it from white farmers. It was they who imprisoned him when he was fighting for precisely that. Their conversion to democracy is a relatively recent one. Most support the MDC not because it directly represents their interests but because, according the old dictum, at times of crisis the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Similarly it is difficult to fathom with what authority the international community makes its high-minded pronouncements. If Mugabe is a wicked tyrant now then he was no less so a few months ago when the British government tried to defend supplying him with arms to fight the unpopular war in the Congo. Objections to Mugabe's terror is well-founded; but given the scant interest world leaders have shown for human rights violations in Chechnya it is neither consistent nor principled.

What is taking place in Zimbabwe is not so much a campaign against whites as a struggle for democracy and human rights. Thanks to Mugabe the issue has been refracted over an unseemly scramble for land in which no one can rightfully claim the moral high ground.

• gary.younge@theguardian.com

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